British Motoring’s Crown Jewel: The History of Austin Cars

For decades, the Austin Motor Company stood as a beacon of British excellence, earning its rightful place as the crown jewel of British motoring. Founded by a pioneer with a vision, Austin cars’ history is replete with some truly outstanding models until a descent into obscurity in the 1980s. This is the history of Austin motors.

Automotive History
13 November 2023

The roots of Austin cars trace back to the early twentieth century when Herbert Austin founded the company in 1905. In his wildest dreams, he couldn’t have imagined the astonishing impact that little old Austin cars had not only on the British motoring industry but on a global scale.

From its inception, Austin motors garnered a reputation for pushing the boundaries of automotive engineering. The company was relentless in its pursuit of excellence, consistently introducing groundbreaking technologies that set new industry standards. This pursuit of perfection not only made Austin a household name, but also ensured its status as an motoring pioneer.

From a disused printworks in south Birmingham, Austin built some astonishing cars, but like many of the early pioneers of the British car industry such as Riley and Singer, the 1970s were bleak and the legacy of the brand was threatened.

The 1980s saw a brief upturn in fortunes but by the end of the decade, the Austin Motor Company was consigned to the annals of history.

This is the story of Austin cars.

The Birth of Austin Cars

Austin Seven sales brochure (Credit: Science & Society Picture Library / Contributor via Getty Images)

In the pantheon of British motoring greats, Herbert Austin rightly sits alongside such luminaries as Walter Owen Bentley, David ‘DB’ Brown, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, and Alec Issigonis.

Born in Buckinghamshire in 1866, the young Herbert Austin displayed a remarkable aptitude for engineering and mechanics. After his formal education ended, he emigrated to Australia in 1884 and got a job with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company in Sydney.

While at Wolseley, Austin’s engineering skills flourished, and his ingenuity and innovative thinking caught the attention of the company’s British management.

In 1893, Austin returned to England, working for the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company. It was there that his talents were applied to the automotive industry, and he would go on to design a groundbreaking Wolseley car in 1896.

After a disagreement over an engine design, Austin left Wolseley and incorporated the Austin Motor Company Limited in 1905, working from a disused printworks in Longbridge.

The luxurious 5.1-litre 25/30 was the first of the Austin motors to roll off the production line, and within a decade, Austin had built tourers, limousines and coupés with a variety of engines. They also produced commercial vehicles and ambulances.

By 1914, the company had over two thousand employees and in terms of number of cars produced, was probably the fifth largest carmaker in the UK behind Wolseley, Humber, Sunbeam and Rover.

The War Effort

1927 Austin Twelve Mulliner. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

At the outbreak of World War I, car production ceased in favour of the war effort and the Austin Motor Company made a truly staggering contribution. The workforce grew tenfold, from a little over 2,000 to around 22,000, and it’s believed the company made hundreds of heavy guns, thousands of aircraft engines for the British Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, and countless shell cases and searchlights.

After the war, the newly-knighted Sir Herbert Austin made a strategic shift by embracing American principles of mass production. He decided to focus the company’s efforts on a single model, the 3.6-litre Twenty. However, this decision didn’t yield the expected sales figures, and by 1922, the company was facing financial challenges. In an effort to revitalise sales, Austin introduced two significant models in 1922, the straight-four Twelve and, most notably, the 696cc (later upgraded to 747cc) Seven, affectionately known as the ‘Baby Austin.’

In the history of Austin cars, the launch of the Seven saved the company and was perhaps its greatest achievement.

Lucky Seven

Sir Herbert Austin in an Austin Seven, 1922 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Launched in 1922, it was said that the Austin Seven was introduced to a sceptical public, but that scepticism soon gave way to fanaticism. It was a revolutionary car and it had a profound and lasting impact on the global car industry.

Similar to the Ford Model T in America, the Austin Seven was one of the first truly affordable small cars available to the masses. Its relatively low price made it accessible to a wider range of consumers, bringing car ownership within reach of many who before then could only dream of owning a car.

This most remarkable of Austin motors was well-suited for urban driving and navigating narrow roads. It offered practicality for city dwellers and ease of use for a broader audience and it was manufactured using efficient assembly line techniques. This not only lowered production costs but also set a precedent for the mass production methods that would become standard over the following decade.

Such was its popularity that the first car from BMW, the Dixi, was a licensed Austin Seven. In France it was licensed and sold by Automobiles L. Rosengart, and in America it was built by the American Austin Car Company. The first cars from Nissan in Japan also used the Seven as inspiration.

All told, just under 300,000 Sevens were built and it set the company on a path to further success.

The Golden Age of Austin Cars

1965 Austin Healey 3000 Mk. III (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The Austin Motor Company underwent major transformations and played pivotal roles in both World War II and the post-war automotive landscape. During the war, Austin, like many other carmakers, shifted its production efforts to support the war, which included building Short Stirling and Avro Lancaster bombers.

In 1952, the history of Austin cars took a significant turn, merging with Morris Motors Limited to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC). This merger marked an important consolidation within the British car market, bringing together two iconic marques.

One of the notable outcomes of this merger was the creation of Austin-Healey, a joint venture between Austin and famous sports car designer Donald Healey. The Austin-Healey cars, which debuted in the early 1950s and included the stunning 2.9-litre Austin-Healey 3000, quickly gained popularity and became synonymous with British sports car excellence, contributing to Austin’s enduring legacy in the automotive world during this period.

The Biggest Small Car in the World

1959 Ausin Mini Seven. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1959, the Austin Mini was launched and took the automotive world by storm. Designed by Alec Issigonis, it featured front-wheel drive and a transversely mounted engine, a layout that maximised interior space. Its iconic design and agile handling made it an instant hit, appealing to a wide range of consumers.

However despite the remarkable success of the Mini, the next fifteen years or so were beset with a series of mergers, acquisitions and financial strife.

The Decline of a Great

1984 Austin Montego (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

By 1968, BMC had merged with Jaguar to become British Motor Holdings (BMH), and this new entity now also merged with the Leyland Motor Corporation to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC). Austin motors continued to be a part of this conglomerate, which was one of the UK’s largest car manufacturers.

The Austin Allegro and Austin Princess were launched in 1973 and 1975 respectively and even at launch the designs were nothing close to the classic, beautifully-engineered old Austin cars of the past. They were often seen as being poorly built and famously unreliable and it looked like the marque was destined for the scrapheap. That was until 1980 with the launch of the Austin Metro.

Built to compete with the Ford Fiesta, VW Polo, Renault 5 and the Vauxhall Nova, the Metro was a successful car and the company, by now rebranded as the Austin Rover Group, launched the Maestro in 1983 and the Montego the following year. Despite this seeming resurgence however, by now, the writing was on the wall. In 1986, the renamed Rover Group shifted their focus to Rover cars. By the early 1990s, Austin cars were phased out completely.

The rights to the Austin name were passed to British Aerospace, who bought the Rover Group in 1988. In 1994, BMW acquired Rover Group. Six years later, the Rover brand was on the move again, this time to Phoenix Venture Holdings who renamed the company the MG Rover Group.

MG Rover Group then collapsed in 2005 and in the same year, Chinese car conglomerate Nanjing Automobile Group bought all the company’s assets. As of 2023, the Austin brand name is owned by the Shanghai Automobile Industry Corporation who acquired Nanjing in 2007.

Austin Cars: A Remarkable Journey

Early Austin badge (Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Austin Cars’ history is a testament to the enduring legacy of British motoring excellence.

From its humble beginnings to its pivotal role in World War II and the creation of icons like the Austin Seven and Austin-Healey 3000, the Austin Motor Company consistently pushed the boundaries of innovation, quality, and performance.

Like many British carmakers, the company faced challenges in the 1970s and 1980s, but its rich history continues to captivate enthusiasts around the world.


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